At the entrance, where prisoners were separated into men and women, Bohm caught one last glimpse of her father. A few steps later, she fell behind her mother. A Nazi guard with a gun stepped in front of her, and ordered her to turn to the right.
Just like that, Bohm became an orphan.
“That was my life’s most traumatic moment,” said Bohm, who came to Toronto in 1948 with her husband, Imre, also a Holocaust survivor.
This is the first time that Bohm has returned to Poland since the end of World War II. On Monday, she’ll be going to the camp with March of the Living, an international initiative led in Toronto by the United Jewish Appeal. The annual trip to Eastern Europe’s important Holocaust sites is an opportunity for young people to learn their history in the company of a survivor.
Sunday, Bohm and a group of grade 10 and 11 students toured Auschwitz, the original camp that was extended into Auschwitz-Birkenau in the later part of the war.
“We viewed like tourists the hair, shoes and glasses,” said Bohm. “I didn’t sleep very much last night, thinking about the things that happened to me there.” At age 16, Bohm was moved from Auschwitz to the German slave-labour camp Fallersleben, where she assembled land mines and V2 rockets in a converted Volkswagen plant.
In Toronto on Sunday, 2,000 people gathered in Earl Bales Park to commemorate Yom Hashoah. Among the many readings was Elie Wiesel’s “The Legacy,” spoken aloud by another survivor, Arnold Friedman.
“We vow in the name of the dead parents and children ...”read Friedman, “we shall never let the sacred memory of our perished Six Million to be scorned or erased.”
Friedman, too, was a teenager when he was sent to Auschwitz from Warsaw’s “Large Ghetto” in 1944. He, too, was separated from family members when the men and women were split apart, never to see his mother or his four younger siblings again.
Friedman’s father was sent to work in the death camp’s crematorium. One day, the 16-year-old snuck into his father’s barracks, shouting “Friedman! Friedman!,” desperate for a familial moment. A neighbour that Friedman recognized from their village grabbed his arm.
“’Don’t you dare come back here again, or they’ll kill you,’” Friedman, 82, recalls the man saying. “‘If you kids survive, tell the world about it.’”
This year, he celebrates five decades in marriage to his wife, Lilianne, also a survivor of the horrific camp. In 1977, inspired by Alex Haley’s African-American miniseries Roots,
the Friedmans took their then-teenaged son and daughter to Poland, to visit their hometowns and the camp. “We wanted them to have a roots tour,” he said.
Sharing this painful history is part of the post-Holocaust vow of “never again.” But Friedman feels that goal has been let down by more recent genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
“What have we learned?” he asked.